What is a species, anyway?

This is Part 1 of a four part miniseries on the process of speciation; how we get new species, how we can see this in action, and the end results of the process. This week, we’ll start with a seemingly obvious question: what is a species?

The definition of a ‘species’

‘Species’ are a human definition of the diversity of life. When we talk about the diversity of life, and the myriad of creatures and plants on Earth, we often talk about species diversity. This might seem glaringly obvious, but there’s one key issue: what is a species, anyway? While we might like to think of them as discrete and obvious groups (a dog is definitely not the same species as a cat, for example), the concept of a singular “species” is actually the result of human categorisation.

In reality, the diversity of life is spread across a huge spectrum of differentiation: from things which are closely related but still different to us (like chimps), to more different again (other mammals), to hardly relatable at all (bacteria and plants). So, what is the cut-off for calling something a species, and not a different genus, family, or kingdom? Or alternatively, at what point do we call a specific sub-group of a species as a sub-species, or another species entirely?

This might seem like a simple question: we look at two things, and they look different, so they must be different species, right? Well, of course, nature is never simple, and the line between “different” and “not different” is very blurry. Here’s an example: consider that you knew nothing about the history, behaviour or genetics of dogs. If you simply looked at all the different breeds of dogs on Earth, you might suggest that there are hundreds of species of domestic dogs. That seems a little excessive though, right? In fact, the domestic dog, Eurasian wolf, and the Australian dingo are all the same species (but different subspecies, along with about 38 others…but that’s another issue altogether).

Morphology can be misleading for identifying species. In this example, we have A) a dog, B) also a dog, C) still a dog, D) yet another dog, and E) not a dog. For the record, A-D are all Canis lupus of some variety; and are domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), C is a dingo (Canis lupus dingo) and is a grey wolf (Canis lupus lupus). E, however, is the Ethiopian wolf, Canis simensis.

How do we describe species?

This method of describing species based on how they look (their morphology) is the very traditional approach to taxonomy. And for a long time, it seemed to work…until we get to more complex scenarios like the domestic dog. Or scenarios where two species look fairly similar, but in reality have evolved entirely differently for a very, very long time. Or groups which look close to more than one other species. So how do we describe them instead?

Cats and foxes
A), a fox. B), a cat. C), a foxy cat? A catty fox? A cat-fox hybrid? Something unrelated to cat or a fox?


Believe it or not, there are dozens of ways of deciding what is a species and what isn’t. In Speciation (2004), Coyne & Orr count at least 25 different reported Species Concepts that had been suggested within science, based on different requirements such as evolutionary history, genetic identity, or ecological traits. These different concepts can often contradict one another about where to draw the line between species…so what do we use?

The Biological Species Concept (BSC)

The most commonly used species concept is called the Biological Species Concept (BSC), which denotes that “species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups” (Mayr, 1942). In short, a population is considered a different species to another population if an individual from one cannot reliably breed to form fertile, viable offspring with an individual from the other. We often refer to this as “reproductive isolation.” It’s important to note that reproductive isolation doesn’t mean they can’t breed at all: just that the hybrid offspring will not live a healthy life and produce its own healthy offspring.

For example, a horse and zebra can breed to produce a zorse, however zorse are fundamentally infertile (due to the different number of chromosomes between a horse and a zebra) and thus a horse is a different species to a zebra. However, a German Shepherd and a chihuahua can breed and make a hybrid mutt, so they are the same species.

A zorse, which shows its hybrid nature through zebra stripes and horse colouring. These two are still separate species since zorses are infertile, and thus are not a singular stable entity.

You might naturally ask why reproductive isolation is apparently so important for deciding species. Most directly, this means that groups don’t share gene pools at all (since genetic information is introduced and maintained over time through breeding events), which causes them to be genetically independent of one another. Thus, changes in the genetic make-up of one species shouldn’t (theoretically) transfer into the gene pool of another species through hybrids. This is an important concept as the gene pool of a species is the basis upon which natural selection and evolution act: thus, reproductively isolated species may evolve in very different manners over time.

RI example
An example of how reproductive isolation maintains genetic and evolutionary independence of species. In A), our cat groups are robust species, reproductively isolated from one another (as shown by the black box). When each species undergoes natural selection and their genetic variation changes (colour changes on the cats and DNA), these changes are kept within each lineage. This contrasts to B), where genetic changes can be transferred between species. Without reproductive isolation, evolution in the orange lineage and the blue lineage can combine within hybrids, sharing the evolutionary pathways of both ancestral species.

Pitfalls of the BSC

Just because the BSC is the most used concept doesn’t make it infallible, however. Many species on Earth don’t easily demonstrate reproductive isolation from one another, nor does the concept even make sense for asexually reproducing species. If an individual reproduced solely asexually (like many bacteria, or even some lizards), then by the BSC definition every individual is an entirely different species…which seems a little excessive. Even in sexually reproducing organisms, it can be hard to establish reproductive isolation, possibly because the species never come into contact physically.

This raises the debate of whether two species could, let alone will, hybridise in nature, which can be difficult to determine. And if two species do produce hybrid offspring, assessing their fertility or viability can be difficult to detect without many generations of breeding and measurements of fitness (hybrids may not be sustainable in nature if they are not well adapted to their environment and thus the two species are maintained as separate identities).

Hybrid birds
An example of unfit hybrids causing effective reproductive isolation. In this example, we have two different bird species adapted to very different habitats; a smaller, long-tailed bird (left) adapted to moving through dense forest, and a large, longer-legged bird (right) adapted to traversing arid deserts. When (or if) these two species hybridised, the resultant offspring would be middle of the road, possessing too few traits to be adaptive in either the forest or the desert and no fitting intermediate environment available. Measuring exactly how unfit this hybrid would be is a difficult task in establishing species boundaries.


Integrative taxonomy

To try and account for the issues with the BSC, taxonomists try to push for the usage of “integrative taxonomy”. This means that species should be defined by multiple different agreeing concepts, such as reproductive isolation, genetic differentiation, behavioural differences, and/or ecological traits. The more traits that can separate the two, the greater support there is for the species to be separated: if they disagree, then more information is needed to determine exactly whether or not that should be called different species. Debates about taxonomy are ongoing and are likely going to be relevant for years to come, but form critical components of understanding biodiversity, patterns of evolution, and creating effective conservation legislation to protect endangered or threatened species (for whichever groups we decide are species).


Emotional science: passion, spirituality and curiosity

“Science is devoid of emotion”

Emotion and spirituality are concepts that inherently seem at odds with the fundamentally stoic, empirical nature of scientific research. Science is based on a rigorous system of objectivity, repeatability and empiricism that, at face value, appears to completely disregard subjective aspects such as emotion, spirituality or religion. But in the same way that this drives the division of art from science, removing these subjective components of science can take away some of the personal significance and driving factors of scientific discipline.

Emotions as a driving force in science

For many scientists, emotional responses to inquiry, curiosity and connection are important components of their initial drive to study science in the first place. The natural curiosity of humanity, the absolute desire to know and understand the world around us, is fundamental to scientific advancement (and is a likely source of science as a concept in the first place). We care deeply about understanding many aspects of the natural world, and for many there is a strong emotional connection to our study fields. Scientists are fundamentally drawn to this career path based on some kind of emotional desire to better understand it.

Although it’s likely a massive cliché, Contact is one of my favourite science-fiction movies for simultaneously tackling faith, emotion, rationality, and scientific progress. And no doubt any literary student could dissect these various themes over and over and discuss exactly how the movie balances the opposing concepts of faith in the divine and scientific inquiry (and the overlap of the two). But for me, the most heartfelt aspect the movie is the portrayal of Ellie Arroway: a person who is insatiably driven to science, to the point of sacrificing many things in her life (including faith). But she’s innately an emotional person; when her perspectives are challenged by her observations, it’s a profound moment for her as a person. Ellie, to me, represents scientists pretty well: passionate, driven, idealistic but rational and objective as best as she can be. These traits make her very admirable (and a great protagonist, as far as I’m concerned).

Ellie Arroway photo
Also, Jodie Foster is an amazing actress.

I would not, under ordinary circumstances, consider myself to be particularly sentimental or spiritual. I don’t believe in many spiritual concepts (including theism, the afterlife, or concepts of a ‘soul’), and try to handle life as rationally and objectively as I can (sometimes not very successful given my mental health). But I can’t even remotely deny that there is a strong emotional or spiritual attachment to my field of science. Without delving too much into my own personal narrative (at the risk of being a little self-absorbed and pretentious; it’s also been covered a little in another post), the emotional connection I share with the life of Earth is definitely something that drove me to study biology and evolution. The sense of wonder and curiosity at observing the myriad of creatures and natural selection can concoct. The shared feeling of being alive in all of its aspects. The mystery of the world being seen through eyes very different to ours.

Headcase headspace artwork
More shameless self-promotion of my own artwork. You’ll notice that most of my art includes some science-based aspects (usually related to biology/evolution/genetics), largely because that’s what inspires me. Feeling passionate and emotional about science drives both my artistic and scientific sides.

Attachment to the natural world

I’d guess that there are many people who say they feel a connection to nature and animals in some form or another. I definitely think this is the case for many biologists of various disciplines: an emotional connection to the natural world is a strong catalyst for curiosity and it’s no surprise that this could develop later in life to a scientific career. For some scientists, an emotional attachment to a particular taxonomic group is a defining driving force in their choice of academic career; science provides a platform to understand, conserve and protect the species we hold most dear.

Me with cockatoo
A photo of me with Adelaide Zoo’s resident Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Banks (his position was unsolicited, for reference). Giving people the opportunity to have an emotional connection (as silly as that might be) with nature can improve conservation efforts and environmental protection, boost eco-based tourism, and potentially even make people happier


An appeal to reason and emotion 

Although it’s of course always better to frame an argument or present research in an objective, rational matter, people have a tendency to respond well to appeal to emotion. In this sense, presenting scientific research as something that can be evocative, powerful and emotional is, in my belief, a good tactic to get the general public invested in science. Getting people to care about our research, our study species, and our findings is a difficult task but one that is absolutely necessary for the longevity and development of science at both the national and global level.

Pretending the science is emotionless and apathetic is counterproductive to the very things that drove us to do the science in the first place. Although we should attempt to be aware of, and distance, our emotions from the objective, data-based analysis of our research, admitting and demonstrating our passions (and why we feel so passionate) is critical in distilling science into the general population. Science should be done rationally and objectively but driven by emotional characteristics such as wonder, curiosity and fascination.

Not that kind of native-ity: endemism and invasion of Australia

The endemics of Australia

Australia is world-renowned for the abundant and bizarre species that inhabit this wonderful island continent. We have one of the highest numbers of unique species in the entire world (in the top few!): this is measured by what we call ‘endemism’. A species is considered endemic to a particular place or region if that it is the only place it occurs: it’s completely unique to that environment. In Australia, a whopping 87% of our mammals, 45% of our birds, 93% of our reptiles, 94% of our amphibians 24% of our fishes and 86% of our plants are endemic, making us a real biodiversity paradise! Some lists even label us as a ‘megadiverse country’, which sounds pretty awesome on paper. And although we traditionally haven’t been very good at looking after it, our array of species is a matter of some pride to Aussies.

Endemism map
A map representing the relative proportion of endemic species in Australia, generated through the Atlas of Living Australia. The colours range from no (white; 0% endemics) or little (blue) to high levels of endemism (red; 100% of species are endemic). As you can see, some biogeographic hotspots are clearly indicated (southwest WA, the east coast, the Kimberley ranges).

But the real question is: why are there so many endemics in Australia? What is so special about our country that lends to our unique flora and fauna? Although we naturally associate tropical regions with lush, vibrant and diverse life, most of Australia is complete desert. That said, most of our species are concentrated in the tropical regions of the country, particularly in the upper east coast and far north (the ‘Top End’).

There are a number of different factors which contribute to the high species diversity of Australia. Most notably is how isolated we are as a continent: Australia has been separated from most of the rest of the world for millions of years. In this time, the climate has varied dramatically as the island shifted northward, creating a variety of changing environments and unique ecological niches for species to specialise into. We refer to these species groups as ‘Gondwana relicts’, since their last ancestor with the rest of the world would have been distributed across the supercontinent Gondwana over 100 million years ago. These include marsupials, many birds groups (including ratites and megapodes), many fish groups and a plethora of others. A Gondwanan origin explains why they are only found within Australia, southern Africa and South America (the closest landmass that was also historically connected to Gondwana).

Early arrivals and naturalisation to the Australian ecosystem 

But not all of Australia’s species are so ancient and ingrained in the landscape. As Australia drifted northward and eventually collided with the Sunda plate (forming the mountain ranges across southeast Asia), many new species and groups managed to disperse into Australia. This includes the first indigenous people to colonise Australia, widely regarded as one of the oldest human civilisations and estimated to have arrived down under over 65 thousand years ago.

Eventually, this connection also brought with them one of our most iconic species; the dingo. Estimates of their arrival dates the migration at around 6 thousand years ago. As Australia’s only ‘native’ dog, there has been much debate about its status as an Australian icon. To call the dingo ‘native’ implies it’s always been there: but 6 thousand years is more than enough time to become ingrained within the ecosystem in a stable fashion. So, to balance the debate (and prevent the dingo from being labelled as an ‘invasive pest’ unfairly), we often refer to them as ‘naturalised’. This term helps us to disentangle modern-day pests, many of which our immensely destructive to the natural environment, from other species that have naturally migrated and integrated many years ago.

Patriotic dingo
Although it may not be a “true native”, the dingo will forever be a badge of our native species pride.

Invaders of the Australian continent

Of course, we can never ignore the direct impacts of humans on the ecosystem. Particularly with European settlement, another plethora of animals were introduced for the first time into Australia; these were predominantly livestock animals or hunting-related species (both as predators and prey). This includes the cane toad, widely regarded as one of the biggest errors in pest control on the planet.

When European settlers in the 1930s attempted to grow sugar cane in the far eastern part of the country, they found their crops decimated by a local beetle. In an effort to eradicate them, they brought over a species of cane toad, with the idea that they would control the beetle population and all would be well. Only, cane toads are particularly lazy and instead of targeting the cane beetles, they just thrived on all the other native invertebrates around. They’re also very resilient and adaptable (and highly toxic), so their numbers exploded and they’ve since spread across a large swathe of the country. Their toxic skin makes them fatal food objects for many native predators and they strongly compete against other similar native animals (such as our own amphibians). The cane toad introduction of 1935 is the poster child of how bad failed pest control can be.

This guy here, he’s a bastard. Spotted in my parent’s backyard in Ipswich, QLD. Source: me, with spite.

But is native always better?

History tells a very stark tale about the poor native animals and the ravenous, rampaging pest species. Because of this, it is a widely adopted philosophical viewpoint that ‘native is always best’. And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment (of course we need to preserve our native wildlife, and not the massively overabundant pests), there are rare examples where nature is a little more complicated. In Australia, this is exemplified in the noisy miner.

The noisy miner is a small bird which, much like its name implies, is incredibly noisy and aggressive. It’s highly abundant, found predominantly throughout urban and suburban areas, and seems to dominate the habitat. It does this by bullying out other bird species from nesting grounds, creating a monopoly on the resource to the exclusion of many other species (even larger ones such as crows and magpies). Despite being native, it seems to have thrived on human alteration of the landscape and is a serious threat to the survival and longevity of many other species. If we thought of it solely under the ‘nature is best’ paradigm, we would dismiss the noisy miner as ‘doing what it should be.’ The truth is really more of a philosophical debate: is it natural to let the noisy miner outcompete many other natives, possibly resulting in their extinction? Or is it only because of human interference (and thus is our responsibility to fix) that the noisy miner is doing so well in the first place? It’s not a simple question to answer, although the latter seems to be incredibly important.

Noisy miner harassing currawong
An example of the aggressive behaviour of the noisy miner (top), swooping down on a pied currawong (bottom). Despite the size differences, noisy miners will frequently attempt to harass and scare off other larger birds. Image source: Bird Ecology Study Group website.

The amazing biodiversity of Australia is a badge of honour we should wear with patriotic pride. Conservation efforts of our endemic fauna are severely limited by a lack of funding and resources, and despite a general acceptance of the importance of diverse ecosystems we remain relatively ineffective at preserving it. Understanding and connecting with our native wildlife, whilst finding methods to control invasive species, is key to conserving our wonderful ecosystems.